Peripheral Vascular Disease: The Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

In the U.S., there are roughly 6.5 million people over the age of 40 that have a disorder known as peripheral arterial disease (PAD).

This condition is the most common type of peripheral vascular disease (PVD), which is a blood circulation disorder that most often impacts the legs and the feet. Because PAD is so common, these two terms are often used interchangeably.

While there are a number of biological risk factors for PVD, there are also some lifestyle and health factors that you might be able to change in order to lessen your risk for the disease.

Let’s take a look at the risk factors, symptoms, treatments, and more for peripheral vascular disease.

What Is Peripheral Vascular Disease?

Peripheral vascular disease is a disorder that causes the blood vessels that are outside of your brain and heart to block, spasm, or narrow. This blood circulation disorder can happen in your veins or your arteries.

PVD is known by a number of different names, including:

  • Claudication
  • Arteriosclerosis obliterans
  • Intermittent claudication
  • Arterial insufficiency of the legs

It is common for PVD to cause fatigue and pain particularly in the legs and often during exercise. With rest, the pain usually improves. The vessels that supply oxygen and blood to your arms, kidneys, stomach, and intestines can also be affected.

In this disorder, the blood flow decreases and blood vessels become narrowed. This can be due to blood vessel spasms or arteriosclerosis. In the latter cause, the flow of oxygen and blood to your limbs and organs is limited by the buildup of plague in a vessel.

Clots can develop as plaque grows which can lead to an artery becoming completely blocked. The loss of limbs, fingers, and toes can occur as well as organ damage if the condition isn’t properly treated. PAD, or peripheral arterial disease, is a disorder that only develops in the arteries. Arteries carry blood that is rich with oxygen away from the heart. This is the most common form of PVD.

What Are the Types of PVD?

There are two primary types of PVD. These are organic and functional PVD.

Organic PVD is when the structure of blood vessels changes. This might be due to tissue damage, plaque build-up, or inflammation.

When a person has functional PVD, it means that there isn’t any physical damage to the structure of their blood vessels. Rather than physical damage, their vessels narrow and widen in response to other factors such as temperature changes and brain signals. When the vessels narrow, it leads to a decrease in blood flow.

What Are the Causes of PVD?

Next, let’s take a look at what causes peripheral vascular disease. Both organic and functional PVD are caused by different factors, so we examine them separately.

Organic PVD

Organic PVD refers to a disorder where the structure of the blood vessel physically changes. The primary causes of this are:

  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes

Some other potential causes of organic PVD include blood vessel inflammation, infection, extreme injuries, and ligaments or muscles with abnormal structures.

Functional PVD

The blood vessels in your body narrow and widen in response to your environment naturally. Some of the most common causes of this disorder include:

  • Cold temperatures
  • Emotional stress
  • Drugs
  • Operating vibrating machinery or tools

When a person has functional PVD, though, these responses are exaggerated. For example, Raynaud’s disease is a type of functional PVD where temperatures and stress have an impact on your blood flow. In Raynaud’s disease, smaller arteries that supply blood to your skin narrow, limiting blood circulation to affected areas.

What Are the Risk Factors For PVD?

There are a number of factors that can put a person at a higher risk for PVD. These include:

  • Being overweight
  • Having heart disease
  • Being over the age of 50
  • Having abnormal cholesterol
  • Having diabetes
  • A history of stroke or cerebrovascular disease
  • Having high blood pressure
  • A family history of PVD, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol
  • Having hemodialysis or kidney disease

There are also certain lifestyle choices that can increase a person’s risk of developing peripheral vascular disease. These include smoking, drug use, poor eating habits, and not exercising.

What Are the Symptoms of PVD?

Typically, the initial signs of PVD come on irregularly and slowly. A person might feel cramping in their legs and feet that gets worse with physical activity or feel fatigued.

Not everyone that has PVD experiences symptoms. In fact, roughly half of the people who have received this diagnosis don’t experience symptoms.

Some of the other symptoms that a person might experience when they have PVD are:

  • Weak pulses in the legs and the feet
  • Changes in the skin, including brittle, thin, or shiny skin on the feet and legs as well as decreased skin temperature
  • Gangrene
  • Impotence
  • Hair loss on the legs
  • Numbness, heaviness, or weakness in muscles
  • Wounds that won’t heal over pressure points, such as ankles or heels
  • Paleness when the legs are elevated
  • Aching or burning pain when resting, often in the toes when laying down
  • Restricted mobility
  • Reddish-blue discoloration of the extremities
  • Thickened, opaque toenails
  • Severe pain when the artery is blocked or very narrow

Oftentimes, the symptoms of PVD can look like the symptoms of other conditions. For this reason, it’s important to see your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.

What Complications Can PVD Create?

If PVD is left undiagnosed, it can create serious and even life-threatening complications. The decreased blood flow that results from PVD can also be a warning sign for other types of vascular disease. Some of the potential complications of this disorder include:

  • Impotence
  • Tissue death, which can lead to limb amputation
  • Pale skin
  • Severe pain that restricts mobility
  • Pain at rest and with movement
  • Life-threatening infections of the bloodstream and bones
  • Wounds that don’t heal

The complications that pose the biggest threat involve arteries that are responsible for bringing blood between the heart to the brain. If these arteries narrow and become clogged, it can lead to stroke, heart attack and potentially death.

How Is PVD Diagnosed?

One of the most important steps for successful peripheral vascular disease treatment is catching it early. Doing so can help keep the condition from getting worse or expressing any of its life-threatening complications.

If you have any of the symptoms of PVD, tell your physician. They will perform a physical exam and ask you about your medical history. The exam can include things like measuring the pulses in your feet and in your legs.

If a doctor thinks you might have PVD, they might order more specific tests in order to give you a proper diagnosis. Some of these other tests include:

Your physician will determine which of these tests are necessary in order to figure out whether or not you are suffering from PVD.

Peripheral Vascular Disease Treatment

The two main goals of PVD treatment are controlling the symptoms and stopping the progression of the condition. Doing so can help to lower the risk for stroke, heart attack, and other complications.

Some of the treatment options for peripheral vascular disease include:

  • Lifestyle changes to control risk factors, including quitting smoking, regular exercise, and proper nutrition
  • Medicines to improve blood flow, such as some that relax blood vessel walls and blood thinners (antiplatelet agents)
  • Aggressive treatment for diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, or other existing conditions that might worsen PVD
  • Vascular surgery
  • Angioplasty

Before vascular surgery or peripheral angioplasty, an angiogram might be done.

PVD: Catching Peripheral Vascular Disease Early Is Vital for Your Health

While peripheral vascular disease can be treated, it’s important to catch it as early as possible. If this condition goes untreated, it can lead to serious and life-threatening consequences.

Some of the most common peripheral vascular disease symptoms that people first experience with this disease include painful leg cramping that happens when exercising and gets better with rest.

There are some risk factors for PVD that you don’t have any control over, including your age and health history. In order to help prevent the development of PVD, there are a number of lifestyle changes one can make including exercising, eating healthy, and quitting smoking.

Is it time for you to check up on your heart? Have you been experiencing any of the symptoms of PVD? If so, request an appointment with Vital Heart & Vein today!